Jeni Burnell
Research Associate, Faculty of Technology, Design and Environment at Brookes University

Can art increase people’s understanding about place?

This summer I worked with filmmakers StoryWorks UK in the Blackbird and Greater Leys neighbourhoods in Oxford. We recorded local people’s stories, past and present, to create a series of digital stories that share the unique heritage and character of the estate.

As a researcher at the Centre for Development and Emergency Practice (CENDEP) based at Oxford Brookes University, I developed the storytelling project with StoryWorks UK, Museum of Oxford, Oxford City Council and Leys Community Development Initiative. Known as ‘Time to Talk: Digital Storytelling in the Leys’, it received a Sharing Heritage grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

A digital story is a short film approximately two to three minutes long, told in the first person that, when combined with photographs and video footage, shares personal insights about people and their life experiences.

Storytelling projects give people a chance to tell their story in their own words. The stories shared in the Leys have been fascinating.

Many of the people we spoke with have lived on the estate since it was built. They talk about working at the nearby Morris Motors and Pressed Steel factories and of the estate’s active social life.

This includes the ‘Qualiday’ celebrations that once took place at the Blackbird Leys Community Centre, and, more recently, the ‘Singing Estates’ project with conductor Ivor Setterfield.

The ‘Time to Talk’ stories are currently exhibited in the Museum of Oxford’s ’40 Years, 40 Objects’ exhibition, which will run until February 2016 at Oxford Town Hall and a special screening is planned for December 12 in Greater Leys. By sharing these stories with others, I hope to better understand if creative arts projects can have an impact on how people understand a neighbourhood.

My research work explores how small, practical and low-budget interventions, such as community art projects, can bring about bigger, long-lasting change in neighbourhoods.

This international development approach is known as ‘Small Change’ and has been developed by Oxford Brookes University’s Emeritus Professor Nabeel Hamdi.

In his book Small Change: About the Art of Practice and Limits of Planning in Cities, Professor Hamdi explains: “ achieve something big, start with something small, and start where it counts”.

This way of working can been app- lied to many emergency response or long-term development situations, such as housing, health, education and enterprise programmes.

Since 2010, the Small Change team, in partnership with community arts organisation Multistory, have carried out a number of arts-based Small Change projects across the UK.

It has been a privilege hearing people’s stories from the Leys and I am incredibly grateful for the time and generosity of those who have contributed to the project. It’s been wonderful to share these stories with others and celebrate the Leys’ unique contribution to Oxford’s cultural heritage.

Oxford Brookes’ Centre for Development and Emergency Practice sits within the School of Architecture and brings together aid workers, academics, professionals and practitioners to develop practice-oriented approaches to tackle global humanitarian issues such as responding to natural disasters, chronic poverty, torture prevention and issues which arise in areas of conflict.

CENDEP offers postgraduate courses including its award-winning Masters degree in Development and Emergency Practice which has an international reputation for pioneering education and training humanitarian aid workers.

* Anyone interested in attending the screening in Greater Leys on December 12 can get in touch with me via

* All of the films can also be viewed on Vimeo at